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Women in STEM: Lise Meitner

Women in STEM: Lise Meitner

Elise Meitner was born on November 7, 1878, in Vienna, Austria. She was born into an upper-class Jewish family as the third of eight children. Her father was a prominent lawyer and recreationally, a chess master among peers. Her mother was a musician who often played locally. Meitner shortened her name from Elise to Lise, converted from Judaism to Christianity. and was officially baptized in 1908.

 

Meitner became interested in Math and Science at a young age, keeping record of small experiments she did with water, oil and light. She was homeschooled with the rest of her sisters, but unlike her brothers, was subsequently not allowed to attend an institute of higher education. However, with the support of her parents, Meitner studied Physics in a private institution and once universities started accepting women, she enrolled at the University of Vienna.

At the University of Vienna, Meitner studied Physics from 1901–1906 under Anton Lampa, Stefan Meyer and, later, the famous theoretical scientist Ludwig Boltzmann. She was the second woman to receive a Ph.D. in Physics from that institution and it was there that she was introduced to Max Planck who became known as the father of quantum theory. She studied under the eye of Planck after the unexpected suicide of Boltzmann. Planck allowed her to attend his lectures, who until then had rejected any women wanting to attend his lectures. After one year, Meitner became Planck's assistant. In 1907, with her PhD in hand, Planck invited Meitner to Berlin for postdoctoral study and research. There she was introduced to Otto Hahn, who would later become her research partner for the next three decades.

After the trauma of World War I, Otto Hahn was named the Administrative Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, while Meitner became the head of the Physics department. At first she was an unpaid “intern” under Hahn, but later became recognized as an equal. From 1924 to 1934, the duo gained international prestige and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for ten consecutive years.

After Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938 during World War II, Meitner was forced to leave Germany for Sweden. She continued her work at the Manne Siegbahn Institute in Stockholm, but with little success, mostly due to Siegbahn's prejudice against women in the field of Science. In November of 1938, Hahn met secretly with Meitner in Copenhagen. At her suggestion, Hahn and Friez Strassmann, a friend and fellow colleague, performed further tests on a uranium product they believed was radium. When they found that it was in fact barium, they published their results in Naturwissenschaften (January 6, 1939). Simultaneously, Meitner explained (and named) nuclear fission. The proof of fission required Meitner's physical insight as much as the chemical findings of Hahn and Strassmann.

The separation of the original duo of Hahn and Meitner led to the Nobel committee's failure to understand her part in the work. In 1944, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Otto Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission, disregarding Lise Meitner, who worked with him in the discovery and gave the first theoretical explanation of the fission process. In 1946, she was recognized in America for her accomplishments, she dined with President Harry Truman, who at a dinner for the Women’s Press Club honoring Meitner’s work. Soon after, Hahn and Strassmann re-invited Meitner work with them at the Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, West Germany which she subsequently declined.

Lise Meitner retired in Cambridge, England in 1960, where she died from natural causes on October 27. In 1992, element 109, was named Meitnerium (Mt) in her honor.

“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep awe and joy that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.”

― Lise Meitner

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